If you’re anything like me, not a day goes by when you don’t wish you could throw a car into the air before destroying it with your heat vision, all the while remaining invisible. It would be a great way to let off steam and you’d be a hit at parties, but because of the killjoy laws of physics and anatomy, such incredible powers remain the domain of cheap comic books…or do they? Here are ten real examples of bizarre human superpowers.
Googling “magnetic people” brings up a slew of pages, videos, and pictures of shirtless dudes covered in spoons and looking oddly smug for someone who claims to have magnetic powers but can’t levitate a car or anything. Quick-thinking observers will note that some of these magna-men are supporting objects that aren’t magnetic or even metal, and when scientists have actually bothered to investigate their claims, no evidence of magnetic fields is discovered. What’s the real story? It turns out that “magnetic” people are often using a number of sleight-of-hand tricks in conjunction with a uniquely weird super-ability: extreme stickiness. Of course, there’s a lot more money and publicity in pretending to be Magneto than actually being The Incredible Glue-Man
If you were one of those kids who read each issue of ZooBooks three or four times each, you’re probably familiar with the concept of echolocation, the ability for bats, dolphins, and whales to “see” through pulses of sound waves. What may surprise you is that a surprising number of humans have essentially trained themselves to do the same thing after losing their eyesight to disease or accident. Daniel Kish, an advocate of rights for and public awareness of the blind, lost his eyes to retinal cancer when he was barely a year old, but soon learned to compensate by making dolphin-like clicking sounds with his tongue. He and his organization have taught human echolocation techniques to over 500 blind children and shown them that they can be as capable of independent movement (including hiking and bicycling) as anyone else. MRI studies of human echolocation users have shown that their brains’ visual cortexes are actually repurposed to process sound in terms of echo, distance, and direction, allowing for a form of sight that allows them to navigate almost any environment and giving them a surprisingly deft sense of distance.
Feats of Memory
For those of us who lose track of our TV remote within a minute of using it, the talents of people like Stephen Wiltshire and Kim Peek are legitimately amazing. Wiltshire, an autistic artist with a photographic memory, once famously re-created a sweeping vista of New York City after a brief helicopter flight over the harbor. Peek, who passed away in 2009, was widely assumed to have a similar autistic savant condition to Wiltshire’s, but in fact suffered from an obscure condition known as FG syndrome—born missing most of the nerve connections between the two lobes of his brain, it’s theorized that his neurons made new and unusual connections that accidentally increased his memory capacity far beyond the human baseline. Although Peek’s motor skills were damaged, he became capable of feats such as reading both pages of a book simultaneously and recalling the book’s details perfectly years later. After a chance meeting with screenwriter Barry Morrow, Peek’s condition was fictionalized in the movie "Rain Man," and the formerly shy man became a celebrity of sorts.
As an electrician, Puerto Rico’s Jose Rafael Marquez Ayala has a particularly suitable super-power: invulnerability to electric shock and the ability to conduct high-voltage high-amperage current through his body, to the extent that he can light bulbs and set fire to paper. It would be like if a bike courier had super-speed, or if a DMV clerk had unlimited contempt for the people in line. Ayala is one of the most impressive examples of a small group of people whose bodies seem to be much better at conducting electricity than the norm, allowing power to flow through them without causing them burns or even pain. Scientists have yet to understand the exact way that Ayala and others avoid injury and death (even if their bodies are too good of a conductor to avoid burns, they still run a huge risk of shorting out their hearts and brains) and while Ayala has visited the University of Puerto Rico’s physics department several times, the researchers there aren’t even sure what tests they can run that won’t endanger his health.
Instances of hysterical strength—the ability to lift, push, or haul weights far greater than one’s normal capability in times of emergency—are well-documented but controversial in the medical community. The first documented report was in 1982, when the jack under Tony Cavallo’s ’64 Impala slipped and his 50-year-old mother Angela lifted and supported the 3500-pound car long enough for the neighbors to drag him out from under. More recently, 22-year-old Lauren Kornacki lifted a BMW off of her father when, again, the jack slipped and pinned him beneath the car. Scientists believe these incidents are possible because the muscles of the human body are “over-engineered” and when flooded with extra adrenaline (from the shock reaction) and nutrients (from temporarily shutting down secondary functions such as digestion) can handle a lot more strain than normal, although incidents of muscle damage are fairly common after a hysterical strength episode. Doctors are unable to test these theories, however, due to the ethical complications involved in suddenly dropping a car on a member of somebody’s family.
Long-distance runner, motivational speaker, and yogurt salesman Dean Karnazes is a living legend in the running community. Among his many feats are marathons through Death Valley and the South Pole, an 80-hour treadmill session where he ran 350 miles without stopping, and the infamous Endurance 50—50 full marathons in 50 states over 50 consecutive days. His training and medical team, discovering that there was almost no scientific research into such a feat, decided to keep their own record of his health over the course of the event. That’s how they discovered something incredible: Dean Karnazes’ muscles are almost invulnerable to damage. The amount of creatine phosphokinase (an enzyme that heals muscle tissue and leads to soreness) in his bloodstream after the first week was less than a fifth of the amount of CPK present in an average runner after just one marathon. Also, while fooling around with his blood, they discovered that he just plain had more of it than most people, allowing him to stay hydrated and healthy for longer periods of time. After Karnazes finished the Endurance 50, his science team concluded that if he was kept properly hydrated and fed, he could literally run at around 7-10 MPH until he died of old age. That’s a man I’d like to buy a yogurt from!
Unlimited Muscle Growth
When the Hoekstra family adopted their son Liam, they did so knowing that his difficult and premature birth might lead to a host of medical problems down the line, but happily the only thing that seemed odd about the little boy was that he was eating all the time but never gaining weight. As it turned out, Liam was eating big but staying small because he was turning all that food into muscle—he was able to support his own weight with his arms at the age of five months, and at nine months was climbing up and down stairs. Liam has an extremely rare condition known as myostatin-related muscle hypertrophy, meaning that certain proteins that would normally inhibit muscle growth just aren’t present in the same levels in his system. Even better, as far as doctors can tell, there’s no medical downside to his condition, unless you end up having to look after a superhuman baby that eats six meals a day and can crawl out of any playpen designed by man. Today, Liam is six years old, in perfect health, and making a name for himself in grade-school wrestling matches.
Cold Resistance/Total Autonomic Control
Most Dutch people’s superhuman abilities are confined to the areas of tulip farming, windmill construction, and hashish procurement, but Wim “Iceman” Hof has dedicated his talents to exploring the ability to control the body’s autonomic functions, i.e. the release of hormones and chemicals in response to outside conditions or internal disease. Remarkably, his techniques of meditation and self-reflection seem to actually work. Hof holds eighteen different world records related to cold, having spent nearly two hours immersed in an ice bath with no ill effects, and performing a number of cold-weather stunts such as attempting to scale Mount Everest in shorts (he turned back only after injuring his foot). Scientific examination reveals that Hof can control the amount of stress hormones and inflammatory cytokines in his blood, allowing autonomic processes to run faster and more efficiently, and thermal imaging has shown that his core temperature while submerged in ice drops significantly less than the average human. While researchers argue that the sample size (by which they basically just mean Wim) is too small to determine whether or not autonomic self-control is a mutation unique to Hof’s system, Hof is more than willing to teach his meditation techniques to anyone willing to spend the next thirty years sitting in a pool of ice with an eccentric Dutchman.
Iron Palm, Shirt and...Other Things
Martial arts novices in both West and East have a tendency to associate certain fighting and meditation styles with magical or superhuman powers, as any exasperated Taekwondo teacher can tell you after fielding the tenth request of the day to teach someone how to do a hadouken. Some of the more obscure and poorly-understood disciplines have to do with qigong, which is broadly defined as a combination of breath control and repeated fluid movement, but due to its association with Taoist and Shaolin monks (and any number of fantastical wuxia and martial arts films) the practice has taken on an element of mysticism. That’s unfortunate, because some of the exercises have been shown to have legitimate physical benefits—the Iron Palm (strengthening the fist) and Iron Shirt (strengthening the torso) disciplines use repeated strikes and conditioning to gradually toughen the body to the point that practitioners develop stronger bones, tougher skin, and tighter tendons. Maybe less immediately useful is the practice of si-sue jing qigong, known popularly as “Pubic Hang Qi Gong,” where over the course of several months students develop the ability to suspend up to 160 pounds from their gonads. Devotees claim that Pubic Hang techniques lead to an overall increase in the health of the practitioner, and a few whisper that the practice leads to greater sexual prowess, although why a Buddhist monk would need to develop better sex-fu has never been satisfactorily answered.
Next: The Funniest Photos You Will See Today
Isao Machii bills himself as “The Modern Samurai,” although technically he is “only” a highly skilled and disciplined practitioner of the Japanese formal sword technique called iaido. That’s probably the best for Machii, as the time he might’ve had to spend with the traditional samurai obligations of composing poetry, practicing calligraphy, and managing rice plantations can instead be used to develop his swordsmanship to the point where he holds several Guinness World Records for Japanese swordplay, including “Fastest Tennis Ball Cut By Sword” which stands at just over 700 kilometers per hour. Even more impressive than that is a stunt he’s performed on Japanese and American television: an airsoft pellet (typically around 5mm in diameter) is fired at around 350 km/h at a target just to Machii’s left side, and despite it being literally impossible for the human vision system to even see the pellet he can successfully draw his sword from his scabbard to slice the pellet in two. Scientists are unsure how Machii determines when and where to slash, but it’s assumed that it relies less on sight and more on instinct and subconscious calculation. Isao Machii is currently on retainer for the Japanese government, constantly guarding the Prime Minister from BB-gun wielding assassins.